A Deal with the Devil

Main Piece: I love the folklore around music. There are some great stories. Like I love the one about legendary blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson. Johnson really wanted to play the blues guitar badly and so he was told to go down to this crossroads where a large man in black met him at midnight. This large man takes his guitar and tunes it, plays a couple of songs and hands it back to Johnson. Suddenly, Johnson played the guitar perfectly. Like he was possessed. And the story goes that that man was the devil. And Johnson sold his soul to make it happen. To play the blues perfectly. And then Johnson died really young. In his 20’s I think. And I’ve always found that story fascinating because some people play so well it’s like they’re possessed. And music can become an obsession. You can want so desperately to be good at it that you’d be willing to sell your soul to master it. I know lots of musicians who would be really tempted by that bargain even if they died in their 20’s. Maybe especially if they did.

Background Information: This piece was performed by James Burnett, my brother. James has been playing music for most of his life and it is his great passion.

Context of the Performance: The story was performed in person in James’ room in our house.

My Thoughts on the Piece: When James told me this story, it reminded me of one of the scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? I didn’t realize that scene was actually based on a popular bit of music folklore about Robert Johnson. (I’d actually never heard of Robert Johnson which James found pretty appalling.) Knowing that the story had been reused in a movie and that I didn’t know where it had started was really interesting to me. It showed on a personal level how these stories can develop and change over time like a game of telephone. Pretty soon people don’t even know how it started or how much it has changed.